Words From the Playwright and Director
On Miguel de Cervantes:
"Like his contemporary, William Shakespeare, Miguel de Cervantes y Saavedra lived a life only sparsely documented, many years of which are only veiled in shadow. These things are known: he was born in 1547 to a proud but impoverished hidalgo family; he was a soldier, suffered serious wounds at the battle of Lepanto, was taken captive and spent five years as a slave in Africa. Above all he loved the theatre; in 20 years he wrote some 40 plays, none of which were successful. In 1597, he was excommunicated for "offenses against His Majesty's Most Catholic Church," narrowly escaping more drastic punishment. He served at least three, and possibly five, terms in prison on various charges. Aging, infirm, an utter failure, he undertook the writing of Don Quixote to make money. Volume I, published in 1605, when Cervantes was 58, brought him fame but little profit. Volume II, appearing ten years later, ensured his immortality as author of the world's greatest novel, but he was already broken in body if not in spirit. He died in 1616, within ten days of the death of Shakespeare. His burial place is unknown.”
-From Dale Wasserman's Preface to Man of La Mancha
"In order to attain the impossible, one must attempt the absurd."
-Miguel de Cervantes
I opened the script of Man of La Mancha exactly a year ago, torn as to whether I wanted to include it or not in the 50th Anniversary season; read the paragraph above in Mr. Wasserman's Preface; and immediately burst into unexpected tears. Those ten, terse, dramatic sentences summing up Cervantes' life simultaneously broke and thrilled my heart.
Reading on, I encountered Mr. Wasserman’s description of the inception of the piece:
"What had ensnared my interest was not the book but its author. For one learns that the life of Miguel de Cervantes was a catalogue of catastrophe. What sort of man was this - solider, playwright, actor, tax-collector and frequently jailbird - who could suffer unceasing failure and yet in his declining years produce the staggering testament which is Don Quixote? To catch him at the nadir of his career, to persuade him toward self-revelation which might imply something of significance concerning the human spirit - there, perhaps, was a play worth writing...the adventure began. I use the word advisedly, for the writing of Man of La Mancha was an adventure, in form, technique, and in philosophy...we groped our way toward a kind of theatre that was, at least within the boundaries of our experience, without precedent...It would be heartening to say that the finished play immediately ensnared the interest of producers and backers. It didn't. They regarded it as too radical, too "special" and , most crushing of all, too intellectual...But there came a night when lights glowed on Howard Bay's island-stage, and the audience responded to the performance with fervor that stunned even the most sanguine of us...a sort of electricity crackling randomly among the audience...polarizing toward a massive discharge of emotion...on the simplest level, and philosophies aside, the play is my way of paying tribute to the tough and tender spirit of Miguel de Cervantes."
Like Mr. Wasserman, I fell in fascination with Cervantes. After reading through the script, reading a snippet of Don Quixote, and reading more about the knight's creator, I was sold. Producing Man of La Mancha suddenly felt like the best of choices for the 50th anniversary season. It was, to my mind, an apt and moving way not only to pay homage to Cervantes and his ideals, but to those he represented - centuries-worth of stubborn, quixotic, courageous theatre folk and artists of all kinds, brave hearts who do good for others and the world, and idealists and dreamers from all walks of life. And of course, it goes far beyond that – what better piece for the 50th, than one that celebrates the art and importance of illusion? What better play than one that seems to exemplify and embody the totality of our institution's impossible dream journey to our fifty year landmark? So many messages and themes of the play felt not only meaningful to our company's specific "quest," but so deeply resonant and so urgently needed in general, for we find ourselves in a time and place where courtesy, chivalry, generosity, truth, nobility and hope seem in short supply.
I wanted to direct a La Mancha that hearkened back to the authors' original intentions stylistically and thematically. The piece has been around long enough now that sadly, it has suffered some of the slings and arrows of success. But it is a piece filled with profound questions and themes - as profound as any found in Shakespeare, Pirandello, Williams or Beckett. And like all great classics, it is a rich smorgasbord of paradox - light and dark, sweet and bitter, brutal and compassionate, tender and cruel, heartbreaking and inspiring. This is what I wanted to explore in my journey with the play.
The great Argentinean author Jorge Luis Borges' short story "Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote," is a strange and compelling little piece written in the style of an article in an academic French literary journal. The narrator attempts to rectify a number of errors put forth by another academic in recording the career of the writer Pierre Menard. According to the narrative, Menard had resolved to write Don Quixote, not to copy the story down as it exists in the version by Miguel de Cervantes, but to arrive at the conditions necessary to write exactly the same story through his own experiences. The narrator compares identical passages from Menard’s Quixote and that of Cervantes, concluding that Menard's is far superior. While Borges' story is a delightful satire of the conventions of academia, critics, authors and the literary world, it is also a provocative and disturbing riff off the themes embedded in Don Quixote (the real one!) and a comment on the ways in which history, context and perspective can and will render the meaning of a great text and its themes ever-changing and fluid.
More than anything, for me, Borges' story encouraged me in my determination to explore some of the more ignored aspects of Wasserman's tale of Cervantes - especially its constant questioning of what is reality and the insanity of trying to pretend that there is one reality for us all - nothing could be farther from the truth. And truth, of course, is subjective too - or is it? That subject is another great thematic tsunami that runs through Cervantes' river of ink. Truth, hope, illusion, delusion, reality, art, darkness, love, light, life, despair, risk, impossible dreams, unbearable sorrows, unbeatable foes, unrightable wrongs, courage and unreachable stars - what more could one ask for?
With a nature that has been inexplicably drawn to quixotic endeavors since I was a small child (often to my parents' dismay), the play feels, at this time in my life, a perfect choice; at this time in our institution's life, a perfect choice; at this time in our nation and planet's life, a perfect choice; and I marvel at a world that keeps me from losing hope by virtue of the fact that it produces against all odds, men like Miguel de Cervantes and his alter-ego, Don Quixote de la Mancha.
"Thou hast seen nothing yet."
-Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote to Sancho,